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Biden wraps up Middle East trip with pledge to Arab leaders

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Biden is on his way back to the United States after a four-day trip to the Middle East. It was his first time there as president. He reaffirmed commitments to Israel and released more aid money for Palestinians, and he attended a summit with Arab leaders who the U.S. is hoping will keep oil supplies flowing as gas prices remain high. This morning, he told them the U.S. intends to remain a key player in a region where American rivals also seek influence.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran. We'll seek to build on this moment with active, principled American leadership.

MARTIN: But the visit was overshadowed by the meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who U.S. intelligence agencies say approved the operation that killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. NPR's Fatma Tanis has been following events from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and she's with us now. Fatma, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So let's start with the latest activity today. That was Biden's speech to a meeting of nine Arab leaders, Gulf countries, along with Egypt and Jordan. What stood out about Biden's message?

TANIS: You know, the president painted a positive picture, saying the Middle East is relatively stable and also more united than it has been. Some main points from his speech today - he said the U.S. and Gulf countries will be investing in clean energy, water resources and working to address the ripples of Russia's war in Ukraine on energy markets and food insecurity in the region. He talked also about coordinating efforts on air defenses, freedom of navigation to counter threats from Iran, which was a big theme across his trip. And finally, he also underlined the United States' commitment to promoting human rights in the region.

MARTIN: Well, to that point, I mean, as we noted, there was a lot of attention - and, frankly, some outrage - over Biden's meeting last night with the Saudi crown prince. He's the de facto leader of the country. Biden had called the country a pariah when he was running for president, so would you talk a little bit more about that and kind of recap that for us?

TANIS: Absolutely. You know, all eyes were on his first interaction with the crown prince at the Al-Salam Royal Palace here in Jeddah. We saw Biden greet Mohammed bin Salman with an outstretched fist bump. This did not go over well with many in the U.S., and it was widely criticized by human rights activists as being too warm and friendly. So then at a late-night press conference on Friday, the president defended his meeting and said that he actually brought up the issue of human rights and specifically the killing of Khashoggi at the top of his conversation with the crown prince.

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BIDEN: He basically said that he was not personally responsible for it. I indicated that he probably was.

TANIS: Now, human rights advocates say that the meeting will likely embolden the crown prince to be more repressive than he already is. They say Biden didn't actually have to meet with him to get Saudi cooperation. But, you know, that's an open question. As you mentioned, the crown prince is the de facto leader of the kingdom. He has consolidated power. And Biden certainly felt that he needs Saudi cooperation on oil to maintain the truce in Yemen and also to oppose Russia's war in Ukraine.

MARTIN: So let's talk about the - some of the - the other perspective. I mean, what's been the narrative in the Saudi leadership and the media?

TANIS: You know, the Saudis definitely projected the upper hand throughout the trip. And it's not just because they were hosting the event but because the president of the United States needed their help and came all the way to visit. And so this has certainly been reflected throughout Biden's time here, which, by the way, was just short of 24 hours. But the U.S. press corps, for example, had very limited access compared to the Saudi press. And so the optics were really dominated by the Saudis. And in the Saudi press coverage, which tends to be more columnist oriented, the takeaway is now that the kingdom is too strategically important to ignore.

And so Saudi-U.S. relations are back to normal and not getting a, quote, "reorientation," as Biden had put it in an op-ed explaining why he was going. And of course, the biggest thing for them is the rehabilitation of their young crown prince on the global stage. Now, of course, there was a debate in the U.S. on whether it was actually worth it for Biden to come here. We're just going to have to see what the Saudis will deliver in the coming weeks on months on energy - on stabilizing energy markets, keeping the peace in Yemen and their cooperation in the war in Ukraine.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Fatma Tanis in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Fatma, thank you so much for talking to us.

TANIS: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.